Our recessionary economy has heightened the stakes in the battle for career security and advancement. As executives look for ways to strengthen their professional portfolios and gain a
competitive advantage on the playing field, the demand for leadership training is growing
exponentially. In response to this high demand, the market is being flooded with a vast array of socalled leadership development books, tools, courses, and programs, many of which are woefully
inadequate when it comes to delivering a successful, sustained leadership transformation.
If you are scouting for ways to enhance your own leadership skills or those of a colleague, evaluate
your options carefully. Your MVP (most valuable program) will be endowed with these critical
Readiness: The first and most important component of a successful leadership development
program is not found in the program itself but rather in the mindset of the participant. Are you
mentally ready for the challenge? On a popular weight?loss reality show, the weight?burdened
contestants who succeed in physically transforming themselves attest that the first step of the
journey is a transformation of mind, heart, and soul. Likewise, the success of your leadership
coaching program will depend on whether you are truly ready to be coachable. So ask yourself: Are
you determined to take action and step out of your comfort zone? Are you ready and willing to face
some scary stuff, see yourself through others' eyes, and change some behaviors that have been rusted in place by time and repetition?
This readiness to be coachable often hinges on career roadblocks or milestones. Perhaps you did not get that promotion, and you have no idea why, or maybe you did get that promotion, and you realizethat you are not prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Regardless of the circumstances, your motivation must be self?driven, and your commitment must be life?long. Leadership development is about making real, lasting changes in your behavior.
Objective Feedback: We often hear that leadership is in the eye of the beholder-being
recognized as a good leader is more about how others view us than about how we view
ourselves. Unfortunately, we do not always have an accurate understanding of how others view us.
Even those of us who are keenly self?aware are susceptible to blind spots. Therefore, seeking an
outside, objective perspective on our own skills and behavior is an important first step in leadership
Take care, though, from whom you seek feedback. People are not equally well?equipped to
give objective performance feedback. In fact, it is human nature to make quick, complex judgments
about other people based on very little information. Often, these judgments are contaminated by our
personal thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and past experiences.
On the other hand, well?trained leadership coaches have learned how to distill their observations
into relatively pure behaviors, leaving out many of the idiosyncratic biases and values that tend to
color the layperson's observations. For example, the coaches in the Leadership Development
Program at the University of Tennessee's Center for Executive Education must undergo training that
meets guidelines endorsed by the International Congress on Assessment Center Methods.
As you seek out a coach who will play such a critical, instrumental role in your life, take the time to
check his or her credentials.
Tailored Approach: Rarely will an off?the?shelf development course meet your needs. A
successful, sustainable leadership development program will be customized to your unique
circumstances. For example, in a tailored leadership development program, your coach will work
with you to help you understand the feedback you receive, discuss your current work situation and
future career plans, and figure out which issues are most crucial (e.g., most likely to hold you back in
your career). Furthermore, your coach will help you think through the positive feedback you receive
and identify areas of true strength that can be better leveraged to help you attain your career and
Accountability: The power of putting goals on paper cannot be overstated. Some of the most
consistent findings in the history of behavioral and psychological research have been in the area of
goal setting and its effect on human motivation. That is why you will find the SMART goals acronym
(Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time?bound) in virtually every introductory
management textbook in the country. These five characteristics emerge time and again as important
drivers of motivation. To put it simply, they help to direct effort to the right place for the right
reasons and for the right amount of time, and they close some of the loopholes that allow us to slip
out of our commitments.
The concept of SMART goals seems simple, but it actually takes a skilled hand to adapt these
principles and make them work in real life. Again, trained, experienced coaches will help you make
SMART goals and monitor your progress as you make accountability a way of life.
Resources: Approach your choice of a leadership development program with a life?long
relationship in mind, because one of the most invaluable benefits of such a program is the mentoring
and professional networking opportunities it provides. Every year, alumni from the Leadership
Development Program in our executive MBAs reach out to their coaches for help with challenges that
have arisen in their career or personal life. Some of them need a second opinion from a trusted
source outside their organization; some of them want to start a small?scale leadership development
program for their direct reports; some of them just want a reference for a great book on time
management or negotiation tactics. Regardless the need, the resource is always available.
If you use these criteria to choose your leadership development program, you will be well on your
way to becoming the best leader you can possibly be. Just remember that victory ultimately rests on
your own shoulders.
Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile. -Vince Lombardi
About The Author:
Cheryl Barksdale, Ph.D., is director of Leadership Development Programs for the University of Tennessee Center for Executive Education MBA Programs for Working Professionals and nondegree Leadership programs as well as a lecturer in the university's College of Business Administration Department of Management.